General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 21 Nov 2017/6 Vulture
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Mexico postage stamp from 1981 celebrating the avocado

IN THE NEWS: avocados

World demand for avocados is soaring, and Mexico - the fruit’s original home and the world’s leading producer - is struggling to keep up. Worse: where there’s a big commercial market, the Mexican drug cartels will be in there, extorting money from local producers. Mexicans rightly laugh at the difficulties Europeans have cutting avocados open safely. We may chuckle too at the origin of the word, in the Aztec language, with its slang association with ‘testicle’. But the humble ‘alligator pear’ has a long and proud history in Mexico - one of the country’s gifts to the world... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Young avocado plant (seedling), complete with parted pit and roots
Pic 1: Young avocado plant (seedling), complete with parted pit and roots (Click on image to enlarge)

The English word ‘avocado’ comes first from the Spanish aguacate but the Spanish got it from the Mexica (Aztecs), who called it ahuácatl and the avocado tree ahuacaquáhuitl. Because of the resemblance in its shape, in common folklore (presumably going back to Aztec times, though there’s no direct evidence of this) it has been used metaphorically to refer to the testicle*. Considered a ‘superfood’ by some, we know that wild avocado fruit (Persea Americana) was being gathered and eaten by native Americans in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico as far back as 8,000-7,000 BCE. Less than 5,000 years later farmers began to plant and grow avocado trees in the region - despite clearly knowing that, a bit like cacao, avocado trees do not first bear fruit for 7 years! These early farmers really ‘knew their onions’, observing the plant’s life cycle over time and taking an agricultural leap of faith in trying to domesticate it.

Pic 2: References in Nahuatl to three types of avocado in the Florentine Codex, Book XI
Pic 2: References in Nahuatl to three types of avocado in the Florentine Codex, Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Although we can find no references to avocados in pre-Hispanic iconography, the Florentine Codex contains descriptions (though no illustrations) of three types of avocado, one being ‘the avocado of noblemen’. The fruit’s oily texture is mentioned. Without a doubt the Mexica (Aztecs) had discovered the fruit’s medicinal as well as dietary qualities: rich in unsaturated fats, fibre, protein and vitamins and with zero cholesterol, it’s a healthy addition to anyone’s diet. But the leaves of the avocado tree, as well as the fruit itself, have long held curative properties too: ‘Menstrual pains... are treated with the leaves of this tree, after they are brewed into a tea. A bronchial cough is calmed with the same decoction. For dysentery: the fruit is roasted and powdered and then eaten as dry as will allow for swallowing. The oil of the avocado can be applied to the skin over gout pains for relief’ (Winter 1968:125).

Pic 3: The toponym (place glyph) for Ahuacatlan, Codex Mendoza for. 39r (detail)
Pic 3: The toponym (place glyph) for Ahuacatlan, Codex Mendoza for. 39r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Its popularity among the Mexica is confirmed too by the existence of the tributary town Ahuacatlan (Place of [Many] Avocados), province of Tlapan, in the Codex Mendoza. Perhaps due to its name and local folklore, the Spanish originally discouraged its cultivation assuming it to be an aphrodisiac, and of course it took even longer to reach the shores of England (it doesn’t travel well, to say the least), where its reputation came with it: one late 17th century English explorer, William Dampier, wrote ‘It is reported that this Fruit provokes to Lust, and therefore is said to be much esteemed by the Spaniards’ (Coe 1994: 46). We know almost nothing about exactly how it was eaten in ancient Mexico, other than mashed into a sauce, with tomatoes and spices, that we know today as guacamole.

Sources:-
Florentine Codex Book 11 - Earthly Things, trans. Charles E. Dibble & Arthur J.O. Anderson, University of Utah, 1963
Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield, Facts on File inc., New York, 2002
America’s First Cuisines by Sophie D. Coe, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1994
Mexico’s Ancient and Native Remedies by Evelyne Winter, Editorial Fourier, Mexico, 1968.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: photo by Mark Hofstetter (Wikimedia Commons)
• Pic 2: image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 3: image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Aug 02nd 2017

emoticon This business of whether the Aztec word ahuacatl ever meant ‘testicle’ is driving me nuts...

‘Food as Medicine: Avocado’ - American Botanical Council
‘Beware the avocado mafia in Mexico’ - Guardian article
*‘The Nahuatl word ahuacatl does not mean testicle’ - article by Magnus Pharao Hansen
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